Although its reach occasionally exceeds its grasp, Catherine Bainbridge’s “Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World” earns respect as much for its achievement as its ambition, while offering a celebratory examination of the often-underappreciated role played in the development of American popular music by singers, musicians, and songwriters of Native American ancestry. The film is structured more or less as a series of individual portraits of 10 significant artists, ranging from Delta blues great Charley Patton to iconic electric guitarist Jimi Hendrix (who was part Cherokee) to living legend Robbie Robertson. A few episodes are less satisfying than others, but only because they spotlight intriguing yet obscure figures that audiences likely would want to learn about in greater detail.
The title comes from “Rumble,” the smash hit 1958 instrumental single by Link Wray (born in New Carolina to Shawnee parents) driven by innovative power chord riffs that would later influence Iggy Pop, Pete Townshend, and hosts of other rock, pop, and heavy-metal masters. Taj Mahal, one of the film’s several on-camera interviewees, recalls that the song actually made him “levitate out of bed about four feet” the first time he heard it on the radio. Indeed, “Rumble” was banned from the airwaves in many U.S. markets because, as Stevie Van Zandt gleefully notes, the scary swagger it conveyed made it sound like “a theme song for juvenile delinquency.”
After kicking off with a tribute to Wray and his legacy, Bainbridge — whose credits include “Reel Injun,” a 2009 documentary critical of Native American stereotypes in Hollywood movies — continues with a neatly balanced mix of biographical sketches and historical context. Working with co-writer and -director Alfonso Maiorana, she nimbly skips from place to place, period to period, taking time to focus on the symbiosis of Native and African-American musical traditions, shameful U.S. government campaigns to eradicate the cultures of indigenous people (Ghosts Dancers were among those slaughtered during the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890) and the defiant political statements of artists such as Buffy Sainte-Marie and John Trudell — the late activist who appears frequently in “Rumble,” and to whom the documentary is dedicated.
“Rumble” relies on interviews with a variety of pop-culture celebrities and commentators, including Tony Bennett, who waxes nostalgic about ’30s jazz diva Mildred Bailey, and Martin Scorsese, director of “The Last Waltz,” the acclaimed documentary about the final performance of Robbie Robertson and The Band. But the film is most compelling when it emphasizes the firsthand testimony, either freshly recorded or drawn from archives, with its “stars.”
Robertson, whose mother was a Mohawk raised on Canada’s Six Nations Reserve, vividly remembers being warned during his youth by other Mohawks to downplay his heritage: “Be proud you’re an Indian, but be careful who you tell.” In contrast, Pat Vegas of the Native American rock group Redbone speaks of wearing traditional Native attire in concerts — and, as a vintage TV clip illustrates, during an appearance on the NBC variety show “The Midnight Special.” His group’s biggest hit: “Come and Get Your Love,” recently used to very amusing effect in “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
By the way, if “Rumble” gets the attention it deserves, don’t be surprised if two tragic figures memorialized here — guitarist Jesse Ed Davis, who died of a drug overdose in 1988, and heavy metal drummer Randy Castillo, felled by cancer in 2002 — eventually inspire their own biopics.